Leno: It’s time to let true replicas into the club


I was such a terrible student in high school that my guidance counselor, Mr. Neal, finally called my mother and me into his office. He said to her, “Mrs. Leno, did you ever think of taking Jay out of school? Maybe have him work full time? You know, education isn’t for everyone.” And I was like, “Hey, I’m in the room! I’m right here!” But it was true. I was going nowhere fast. So the fact that I was able to attain anything in this life is the American dream, and I’m so fortunate to be where I am.

[This article originally ran in Hagerty magazine, the exclusive publication of the Hagerty Drivers Club. For the full, in-the-flesh experience of our world-class magazine—as well other great benefits like roadside assistance and automotive discounts—join HDC today.]

Which is a long way of saying I’m a pretty egalitarian guy. If a screw up like me managed to get some cool stuff and have some great experiences, why shouldn’t anyone else be able to? That’s why I’ve never been bothered by replica cars. Real Shelby Cobras are a million dollars plus, but why should only a few gazillionaires be able to experience the sights and sounds of driving one? As far as I’m concerned, the reason the Shelby legend continues is because of all the affordable Cobra replicas. It’s probably the most replicated car there is, and I’d imagine if you have a real one, it’s probably annoying to have people asking all the time if it’s real.

1965 shelby cobra replica interior
1965 shelby cobra replica Mecum
1965 shelby cobra replica engine
1965 shelby cobra replica Mecum

1965 shelby cobra replica front 3/4
1965 Shelby Cobra replica Mecum

But for me the goal is to get more people interested in cars and out on the road. If something is truly rare and unobtainable, what happens is the group of owners gets smaller and smaller. The cars eventually get wrecked or the aging metallurgy takes its toll, and nobody takes the cars out anymore because they’re too fragile and valuable. Pretty soon, you’re just one old guy sitting in a room with this valuable thing that nobody else knows about. I’m in the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club, and there aren’t many of us driving Duesenbergs to the club meetings. Either the guys are older or the cars are so valuable they’re afraid to take them out. So what’s the point?

I wrote a letter a while back to the American Bugatti Club encouraging them to allow Pur Sangs into club events. In case you haven’t been riveted to the news from the Bugatti world, Pur Sangs are replica Type 35 Grand Prix cars built in Argentina. We’re not talking about those old VW-powered kit cars where the ads showed Timmy handing Dad the wrench and Mom with the paintbrush and little Suzy holding the steering wheel as the whole family put the car together. Pur Sangs are exact copies that sell for a couple hundred thousand bucks, which is expensive but way cheaper than a real Bugatti.

Pur Sangs meet my definition of a true replica—meaning they have copied the engine and transmission piece by piece and replicated the manufacturing process down to the old barn they’re built in. What you have, with the exception of not being built by Bugatti, is about as close as you can get. It allows more people to feel, smell, ride in, and understand the appeal of these cars. For the lucky owners of real Bugattis, it can be like the costume jewelry some women wear that is an exact replica of their real jewelry. You can take it out, and you don’t have to worry about theft or damage, and when you drive a Pur Sang, you can drive it in the true Bugatti spirit. If you blow it up, they’ll just send you more parts to fix it. It brings a whole other generation of people into the club.

Pur Sang Bugatti Type 35 front 3/4
Pur Sang Bugatti Type 35 Drew Phillips

OK, make it so the club has two levels of membership, park the Pur Sangs together in the back row, be honest about what they are—whatever. Just let more people come and play. I hate to see enthusiasm dampened. Every club for which there are replicas has to look at the issue, but if somebody has a replica C-type Jaguar that’s based on the more common E-type and isn’t a Chevy underneath or a Beck 550 Spyder with a Porsche engine, why shouldn’t he or she get to come out to the events? The people who are most enthusiastic about a particular car are the people who see them run, race, and, in the case of a Bugatti, hear that “ripping calico sound,” as they used to say. Replicas aren’t the real thing, but they help spread the religion.

So far, the guys who run the Bugatti club aren’t persuaded. It seems a little snobby to me, but just as the Grammys once refused to acknowledge hip-hop, eventually, things change.

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